When Things On Your Mac Do Cool Things You Didn't Expect Them To…
Adventures in Mac-based Audio

January 9th, 2004
Episode #9

I studied audio engineering when I was a kid. I wanted to be the next Phil Spector, George Martin, or Todd Rundgren; I wanted to eat, sleep, live, and work in a studio -- any studio. I would beg, borrow, barter, cajole, sweet-talk, (and worse), for studio time, and I recorded, engineered, or produced many a demo that way. (None of which sold or I'd probably still be producing music…)

Anyway, at the time -- the '80s -- high quality home audio recording was an esoteric and expensive proposition only rock stars and trust fund babies could swing. For most of us, if we wanted to make a record (CD to you young 'uns), we went to the best recording studio we could afford, and recorded and mixed 24 or more tracks onto 2-inch tape.

It wasn't pretty, but that was what it took if you wanted "the sound." Cutting demos in the basement, even with the finest consumer gear money could buy, didn't come close. If you wanted your song to be radio-friendly, the expensive studio time way was pretty much the only way.

Things are very different today. Today, you can have a million plus dollar state-of-the-art audio recording facility (circa 1984) for well under a grand (Mac not included).

This fascinates me, so I've been playing with OS X audio software quite a bit lately -- Pro Tools, Logic 6, CuBase SX, Deck, Peak, and the like, and I'm blown away with what I can do here in my little office with my Mac, some Mac software, a decent mic, a guitar, and a MIDI keyboard. I truly believe that if I had the time I could produce a radio-playable tune with nothing more. That's not going to happen, at least not for me -- I know I don't have the time and probably don't have the chops anymore; but there's no doubt in my mind any artist who wants to, could do it in a heartbeat.

In my experimentation with digital recording on my Mac, one of the first things I discovered was that if you intend to use a real microphone -- one with an XLR connector and/or requiring 48V phantom power -- you need additional hardware. You can't just plug that kind of mic directly into your Mac. The same goes for guitar -- you need an instrument or line level input and your Mac doesn't have one.

I discovered DigiDesign's way-cool Mbox, a USB device that costs less than US$500 and comes with a full-blown copy of Pro Tools LE, DigiDesign's cheapest complete Pro Tools system. The device itself weighs about a pound, so I can use it with my PowerBook, making my little studio completely portable. And the Pro Tools LE software that's included with the hardware looks like and has full session compatibility with all higher-end Pro Tools systems. This sub-US$500 starter kit has pretty much all you need to record vocals, guitar, and MIDI keyboard.

I'll write more about the Mbox hardware and Pro Tools LE software another time, because now the stage is set for two Cool Things I Didn't Expect.

You see, I play in a rock and roll band. It's just a couple of gigs a year, and the band members live all over the country. So, of course, most of the rehearsing is virtual.

To prepare for a gig, I usually plug my guitar into my little (but loud) practice amp, and play while iTunes blasts out the songs through my (also loud) ElectroVoice multimedia speakers. When I need to sing, I sing into an imaginary microphone (louder), which may or may not be good for my throat, but is a heck of a lot of fun.

Anyway, while this technique is fine for me, it has turned out to be supremely unpopular with my wife and children. I've been reduced to practicing only when none of them are in the house. I never thought I'd see the day when my own kid said to me, "turn that %$#@ thing down, daddy," but I did.

So now I am using the Mbox with some studio headphones, and can practice without disturbing anyone. Or at least not disturbing anyone very much… You see, when I sing, I sing into the microphone. So what they hear is me, a cappella (and often off-key), but me none-the-less.

But what they don't hear is my (extremely loud) fuzz-tone guitar and the Ramones' classic rendition of "California Sun," which is good enough for all of us.

I didn't really get the Mbox for guitar practice but it was so easy to import an MP3 or AIFF file and place it on one track, then play and sing along with it on two other tracks. I could even record my guitar and vocal tracks so I could listen to them later. (EEEEWWWW.)

The whole shebang worked just fine, but when I used Pro Tools this way, I didn't practice guitar very much. Instead, I spent hours diddling with plug-ins and effects processors. It was a blast but it was keeping me from learning the tunes and our gig was getting closer and closer.

So what I wanted was to go back to the old iTunes way, but with headphones instead of my practice amp.

I fired up iTunes, plugged the guitar into the Mbox, and hoped for the best. It didn't work. On a hunch, I opened the Sound System Preference Pane and struck solid gold. I was able to select the Mbox as my input and output device, and bingo -- everything came through perfectly in my cans (i.e. headphones). And using the Mbox's faders (knobs) I set up a headphone mix that had iTunes, the guitar, and the vocals at just the right levels.

YIPPIE-EYE-O. I didn't think it could get much better than this, but it did. I got my hands on a Pro Tools plug-in called AmpliTube; an amplifier, stomp-box, and post-effects modeler for guitars. In plain English, this thing makes your guitar -- whatever kind it is -- sound as if it's being played through a vintage '60's tube amp, modern solid-state amp, or hundreds of other modern and vintage amps and speaker cabinet combinations. And that's not all. AmpliTube also includes stomp box and post-processing effects, and presets for distinctive signature guitar sounds that evoke the sound of Carlos Santana, Brian May, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, and more.

It blows me away. This is one of the coolest things I've ever done on my Mac. I plug my guitar into my Mac (actually, into the Mbox, which is plugged into my Mac) when I want to play it 'cause I love having my choice of amp, speaker cabinet, and outboard effects, and the ones in AmpliTube sound totally awesome to me.

Bottom line: Playing with AmpliTube is almost as much fun as playing Halo. And I haven't had this much fun for this little cash in a long time.

One final bit of coolness before I sign off: Pro Tools systems are bundled with AmpliTube LE, which seems to be a slimmed-down version of the US$399 plug-in I'm using. I say "seems to be" because I got my Mbox before this bundle deal started. Anyway, in addition to AmpliTube LE it includes Propellerhead Software Reason Adapted (a virtual rack of MIDI-based synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and effects); Ableton Live Digidesign Edition (a sample sequencer application that enables you to create, modify and playback loops, phrases and songs via Ableton's "elastic audio" technology); IK Multimedia SampleTank SE (a sample playback module providing quick access to a host of included samples as well as the ability to easily move between them; and IK Multimedia T-RackS EQ (a tube-modeled parametric EQ for mixing and mastering).

If you play an instrument, write songs, sing, or wish you could do any or all of the above, take a look at DigiDesign's amazing little Mbox, a complete audio production system with many uses, all for less than US$500 (you can get it at the online Apple Store for US$449 - look under Third Party Music Creation).

In a word, it rocks.

Mbox (includes Pro Tools LE and bundled goodies); $499.

AmpliTube Plug-In (requires host application such as Pro Tools, Logic, etc.); $399. AmpliTube Live (stand-alone application); $129.

Picture gallery

Front (left) and rear (right) views of the Mbox hardware.
(Click for a larger image)

The Pro Tools LE software set up to play "California Sun" and record my guitar and vocal tracks.
(Click for a HUUUUUGE image)

AmpliTube plug-in's Amplifier settings (top), stomp box settings (middle), and FX settings (bottom).
(Click for another very large image)

Just some of the presets included with the AmpliTube plug-in.
(Click for the last very, very large image)